There's a move on in some parts of Utah to turn Cedar Breaks National Monument into Cedar Breaks National Park. Why? Welllll, because it will produce an economic impact on the surrounding communities, of course.
Economic development is nice, but let's think outside the box a bit for a moment or two. Cedar Breaks, whose claim to fame is a massive, 2,000-foot deep, Creamsicle--hued amphitheater erosion has chewed from the western lip of the Markagunt Plateau, already is protected as a 6,154-acre national monument. Extending national park designation wouldn't really bolster that protection, although it might add a few more acres to the monument's current boundaries.
So who would benefit? The gateway communities -- Cedar City, Parowan, Brian Head and perhaps Panguitch, to name four. Would any more spectacular landscape that's currently in danger of being overrun or trampled be protected? Not that I can think of. Cedar Break's amphitheater and bristlecone pines already are protected.
If the whole purpose behind national monuments and national parks is to protect a significant landscape or a poignant place in history, there are more deserving parts of Utah that could benefit than Cedar Breaks from national park designation. In my mind, if there's a move to extend further protection to lands in the state, no greater benefit could be achieved than by turning the San Rafael Swell into a national park or monument.
The San Rafael Swell is a 60-mile by 35-mile boil of rock in south-central Utah that was ratcheted into place by geologic machinations some 60 million years ago. Eighteenth-century Spanish explorers detoured around the swell because it was such a confounding maze of rock walls, buttes and canyons, and it's been said that 19th-century mountain man Jedediah Smith gazed into the swell in 1826 and saw no reason to enter it.
But take a day or two to explore this rugged landscape and you'll begin to understand why national park status for the area was mentioned as long ago as 1935. That's when the Utah State Planning Board recommended that 360,000 acres of the swell be set aside as "Wayne Wonderland National Park." OK, the name needs work -- San Rafael National Park is much nicer -- but the planning board was onto something.
Others picked up on the idea. In 1936 Bob Marshall, founder of The Wilderness Society, identified nearly 2 million acres of roadless area in the general vicinity of the swell, and in 1980 the Interior Department identified seven potential National Natural Landmark sites in the same area. More recently, the Emery County Development Council proposed that 210,000 acres of the swell be set aside as a national park. About four years ago, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt proposed that 620,000 acres be set aside as a national monument.
Notice a trend yet?
Local opposition and an indifferent congressional delegation have conspired to prevent action on these suggestions. But if towns clustered around Cedar Breaks National Monument believe it should be designated a national park simply to leverage tourist dollars, I would counter that the swell's landscape is much more deserving of that designation to protect the jewels it contains.
Enter the swell today and gaze out from atop the Wedge Overlook and you'll see a jagged canyon nearly 1,000 feet deep commonly referred to as the Little Grand Canyon. Cut by the San Rafael River, this canyon is popular with river runners during the short spring runoff season, and backcountry hikers who the rest of the year can explore side canyons that harbor ancient pictographs.
The Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry on the northern lip of the swell is a treasure trove of fossilized dinosaur bones -- mostly from sharp-toothed allosaurs -- while tight, sandstone slot canyons bearing such names as Little Wild Horse and Crack beg exploration.
Take some time to really explore this rugged landscape and you'll discover some of the Southwest's most curious rock art, such as the renowned Buckhorn Wash panel, the Head of Sinbad images, the Rochester Panel, or the collection found in Black Dragon Canyon. While some images could be a few hundred years old, Barrier Canyon-style images found in the swell could be 7,000 or more years old.
Inside the swell you'll find buttes and mesas, stone arches and minarets, grassy meadows and box canyons, streams and springs, and possibly retrace routes Butch Cassidy took while fleeing posses. There's also a herd of more than 70 desert bighorn sheep, wild horses, and peregrine falcon habitat.
Today this landscape is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which really isn't in the business of preserving landscapes. Its mission long has been to manage use of resources -- minerals, timber, grazing. Part of the problem plaguing the swell in recent years has been uncontrolled off-road vehicle use. Granted, the BLM's Price field office has done a pretty good job of controlling ORV use in the swell, but infractions still occur and the threats to this breathtaking landscape remain.
So if there's to be another national park in Utah, my vote would be for San Rafael National Park, a place with natural resources and an incredible landscape that merit the designation for what they contain, not solely for a nearby community's economic gain.